Rowlf the Dog was the first Muppet to reach national stardom as a cast member of The Jimmy Dean Show from 1963 to 1966. He later went on to serve as the resident piano player on The Muppet Show, also playing the silly surgeon Dr. Bob on the recurring sketch "Veterinarian's Hospital."
Rowlf was the first Muppet built by Don Sahlin. Unlike most of the early Muppets, he was designed as a live-hand Muppet; he was also one of the first non-abstract Muppet characters, built to resemble a dog. According to Henson's original notes, other names considered for the character were Barkley, Woofington, Baskerville, Barkus, Howlington, Waggington and Beowolf. Jim Henson designed three different dogs, one of which became the design for Rowlf, and another of which became the design for Baskerville. 
According to Jim Henson Company archivist Karen Falk, the scripts for the Purina Dog Chow commercials spelled Rowlf's name as "Ralph," possibly after the Ralph Freeman, the advertising account executive on the original Purina campaign. Soon, Jim Henson and Rowlf were sought after for other commercials, sales films and appearances. In late 1963, Bill Wright contracted Henson to make a sales film featuring Rowlf the Dog for the American Photocopy Equipment Company (APECO). Rowlf also appeared in an ad for Esskay Meats during the same time period.
Rise to Fame (1963-1976)
Rowlf rose to stardom as Jimmy Dean's sidekick on The Jimmy Dean Show. The show ran from 1963 until 1966. Rowlf the Dog was a regular on the show, and was billed as Jimmy's "ol' buddy." Between seven and ten minutes of every show were devoted to a spot with Rowlf and Dean. Many of the comedy sketches ended with the two singing a duet together. Rowlf's tenure on The Jimmy Dean Show allowed Jim Henson to develop the character over a period of time.
Rowlf continued to star on variety shows, hosting the 1967 summer variety series Our Place and appearing in several episodes of The Mike Douglas Show. He also hosted the 1968 special Muppets On Puppets.
Rowlf appeared in the 1965 Wilson's Meats Meeting Film, as an example of the Muppets' exposure ("I'm the Muppets' big lovable shaggy dog Rowlf, from ABC's The Jimmy Dean Show!"). He did a similar thing by "stopping by to say 'Howdy'" in the 1966 La Choy Chow Mein Presentation Reel.
He also appeared in the Sesame Street pitch reel, explaining the concept and production process to a wary Kermit, as both characters were the most familiar Muppets at the time. He also appeared in Sesame Street's first season, making a cameo appearance in the "Song of Nine."
The Muppet Show (1976-1981)
When The Muppet Show debuted, Rowlf was a part of the cast. Rowlf was assigned the role of resident pianist (abandoning his ukulele skills from The Jimmy Dean Show). At the piano, Rowlf would often perform classical music, and sing solos or duets. Rowlf also performed in the pit orchestra and sometimes sat in with the Electric Mayhem. Despite Rowlf's established fame among American audiences, a majority of his musical numbers were not seen in the US, as the sketches and songs starring Rowlf dominated the list of UK Spots.
Apart from displaying his musical talents, Rowlf continued his comedic style from The Jimmy Dean Show with his customary puns and gags – most notably as Dr. Bob, "the quack who has gone to the dogs," in Veterinarian's Hospital, or with a female partner in the recurring At the Dance segments. During the first season, Rowlf also appeared in two poetry segments. Rowlf would occasionally take on other character roles in the on-stage productions - including Sherlock Holmes and a Western bar piano player. Whether in featured roles or non-speaking cameos, Rowlf appeared in 89 of the 120 episodes of The Muppet Show. Although he's one of the big stars of the show, Rowlf has never been spotlighted in a backstage plot.
Due to Rowlf's musical skill, it is sometimes incorrectly assumed that he was a part-time member of The Electric Mayhem Band. Although Rowlf played in the orchestra and back-up on several numbers with musicians in the Mayhem band, Rowlf only accompanied the Electric Mayhem three times: in episode 424, in episode 513 and at Fozziwig's Christmas party in The Muppet Christmas Carol. In fact, when the Electric Mayhem walked out over the apparent lameness of The Muppet Show theme song in episode 123, Rowlf was the only musician left. As a result, Rowlf had to play the closing theme single handedly.
In 1985, Rowlf hosted two hour-long video compilations of The Muppet Show. In Rowlf's Rhapsodies with the Muppets, Rowlf sat at his piano and presented a compilation of his best numbers and other songs from The Muppet Show. In Country Music with the Muppets, Rowlf rented a barn and hosted his own country music program while showing clips from the show.
The Muppet Movie (1979)
Rowlf was prominently featured in The Muppet Movie as a piano player at The Terrace Restaurant, where he first meets Kermit. When Kermit is down, Rowlf share his motto in life, a motto even he can't follow - "stay away from women." The two sing "I Hope That Somethin' Better Comes Along". An original draft of the script describes the song as "a sad/funny little duet based on the old 'can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em' theme, designed to allow for some good harmony howling from Rowlf."
The song featured a rare pairing of characters, as Jim Henson virtually performed a duet with himself. In order to achieve the effect, the vocals of the two characters were recorded separately by Henson and then combined. Because Rowlf and Kermit are now played by two different performers (Bill Barretta and Steve Whitmire respectively), they were able to perform a duet again at the 2011 D23 Expo in honor of Henson's naming as a Disney Legend.
Rowlf soon joined Kermit and the rest of the gang on their way to Hollywood. Before joining the Muppets, Rowlf's life was simple - he lived alone, would "go to work, come home, read a book, have a couple of beers, take [himself] for a walk and go to bed." While in the desert, Rowlf played harmonica as Gonzo sang "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" (while Fozzie played ukulele). Rowlf served as the film's cameraman in the finale, as the Muppets prepare to shoot their movie.
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
In The Great Muppet Caper, Rowlf was a resident of the Happiness Hotel. He played piano during the song "Happiness Hotel" and commented on the chambermaids, bugs, and lice. He joined the Muppets on their quest to thwart Nicky's plot to steal the Baseball Diamond (accounting for the whoopie cushion, which he thinks is on the bus). Rowlf saves the day with his bilingual ability to speak dog as well as English. He is able to reason with Henderson's attacking guard dogs at the Mallory Gallery (a skill he would use again in A Muppet Family Christmas to communicate with Sprocket).
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
In The Muppets Take Manhattan, Rowlf was a supporting player, co-starring in Manhattan Melodies. As the gang disbands, Rowlf leaves New York on a bus headed to Delaware. Rowlf displays cinematic range as the conflicted manager of a dog kennel, looking after Mr. Skeffington's dog Snookums and other canine tenants. When Rowlf gets the news that the show is on, he excitedly returns to the Big Apple, bringing along a host of Muppet dogs from the kennel.
A baby version of Rowlf appeared in Miss Piggy's fantasy, I'm Gonna Always Love You. The young pup played piano, sang along, and abstractedly hammered away at a Big Bird doll. Baby Rowlf was also part of the regular cast of babies in the animated series Muppet Babies. Baby Rowlf's role was of course that of the nursery's resident musician, often leading the others into on-the-spot songbreaks, with his ever-present baby piano. His voice in the animated program was performed by Katie Leigh.
The Jim Henson Hour (1989)
On The Jim Henson Hour, Rowlf appeared in a series of sketches where he portrayed the character Merlin in "Merlin the Magician, MD". The sketches (seen in episode 102 and 107) were similar to his Dr. Bob days in Veterinarian's Hospital, but with a medieval, magical twist. The wizard Merlin would use his magic to cure people's medical problems, making jokes and slinging puns all the while. In one sketch, Rowlf is turned into musical icon Elvis Presley.
Rowlf also narrated the film noir special Dog City, which aired as part of the series. The special features an all new cast of new Muppet dogs; however, Rowlf along with a cameo by Sprocket are the only pre-established Muppets present. Rowlf is there as the audience's guide, and is the only character to break the fourth wall.
Rowlf would again be teamed with a group of Muppet dogs in the tenth episode's "Secrets of the Muppets" special, presiding over a meeting of the O.M.D. (Organization of Muppet Dogs) as President.
Television specials and appearances (1979-1990)
Rowlf subsequently appeared in the special Rocky Mountain Holiday. John Denver takes Rowlf on a wild plane ride, performing one stunt after another, in order to cure Rowlf's hiccups. In another scene, Rowlf relaxed on an inner tube in the river, until Gonzo popped the inner tube (and tried to break a world record, "Longest time underwater with a dog sitting on you").
In A Muppet Family Christmas, Rowlf chased the truck all the way to Emily Bear's house. Once there, Rowlf made himself at home, communicating with Sprocket, playing "Sleigh Ride" on Emily's out-of-tune piano, and joining in the festivities.
Rowlf hosted his own play-along video, Sing-Along, Dance-Along, Do-Along, in which he taught viewers how to do a variety of musical activities.
Rowlf also appeared in The Muppets at Walt Disney World. In the special, Rowlf was captured by the Walt Disney World pet care center manager, as Rowlf had no owner or tags. While detained, he performed "I'm Doggin' It," "live from the detention hall of the Walt Disney World Pet Care Center" with the other dogs.
Rowlf was a guest on The Arsenio Hall Show. When Rowlf came out, he pointed to Arsenio and remarked, "Son of a bitch!" After the audience's hysterics died down, Rowlf added, "Coming from a dog, that's a compliment."
An all-Rowlf album, titled Ol' Brown Ears is Back, was released by BMG Records in 1993. The album featured several songs from The Muppet Show, as performed by Rowlf at the piano with an orchestral accompaniment. Though it wasn't released until after his death, Henson recorded the vocals in 1984.
Transition after Henson (1990-2010)
After the death of Jim Henson, Rowlf continued to appear in Muppet productions, silently (and usually briefly). A rumor arose that the character would be permanently silent as a sign of respect for Jim Henson. As Brian Henson commented on in the audio commentary for The Muppet Christmas Carol, Rowlf continued to appear as a tribute to the character and Henson's legacy. Still, Rowlf was not immediately recast and kept in the forefront like Kermit, because at the time, the Muppeteers didn't feel there was a suitable and appropriate performer for the task.
Eventually Bill Barretta took on the character and gradually transitioned into the role. Although Rowlf only appeared in one episode of Muppets Tonight, he uttered his first word since Henson's passing in episode 102; while playing piano during the closing number, Rowlf exclaims "Oh yeah!" He also appeared in Muppets from Space as a resident of the Muppet Boarding House and, at one point, muttered an audible "Oogh!".
Rowlf had several lines of dialogue, a first since Henson's passing, in The Muppet Show Live in 2001 and also spoke two lines of dialogue ("Hey, Kermit!" and "Yeah! Heh, heh. Oh!") in It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie in 2002. Rowlf appeared in the "Keep Fishin" music video for rock band Weezer. Although he's only briefly seen (one can hear him muttering "Good job, River" and "Yeah"), Rowlf had a more prominent role in the behind the scenes making-of special that accompanied it, Weezer and the Muppets Go Fishin'.
In 2005, Rowlf had a 190-word monologue in the second episode of Statler and Waldorf: From the Balcony. Additionally, Bill Barretta recorded the vocals as Rowlf singing "The Christmas Party Sing-Along" for the 2006 A Green and Red Christmas album.
For The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, in the extended interview with Quentin Tarantino, Tarantino commented on how he was disappointed that Rowlf didn't appear much in the movie. Pepe explained this by saying Rowlf was in a car accident and broke his tail, and preferred to not do too many scenes.
Rowlf was prominently featured in a pair of online videos in 2008, "Rolling with the Skateboarding Dog" (where Rizzo comments on his age), and "Skateboarding Dog Gets Served" (where Rowlf tries to show up Tyson, a skateboarding bulldog).
Rowlf has a speaking cameo in the "Game Day" episode of The Muppets Kitchen with Cat Cora. Referencing his absence in recent years, he comments "It's a small part, but times are ruff."
The Muppets and beyond (2011 - )
Rowlf appeared as one of the main characters in The Muppets. He rejoins the Muppets to help put on the telethon to save the theater. At one point he laments being excluded from the montage gathering the Muppets; a clip is then shown of Kermit, Walter, Gary, and Mary asking Rowlf, who is laying in a hammock, if he wants to join the reunion, to which he replies "Okay."
Rowlf returns to his role as pianist for the Muppet theater - playing for both "The Muppet Show Theme" and the musical finale of "Life's a Happy Song." Rowlf also performs in the telethon as a part of the Muppets Barbershop Quartet - along with Link, Sam and Beaker - singing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" while shaving Jack Black.
A sinister doppelgänger of Rowlf, named Roowlf, appears in the film as a member of The Moopets.
Rowlf starred in the Muppets' promotional tie-in commercial for Alamo Rent a Car, and Yamaha Entertainment's Muppets sweepstake. Rowlf was also featured in a series of promotional posters spoofing The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn as WereRowlf. He also appeared in the OK Go music video for "The Muppet Show Theme Song."
According to an interview with Yamaha All Access, Rowlf considers Jason Segel "a fine piano player. During the movie, we jammed together between takes. Boogie-woogie! Jason plays a mean boogie, and my woogie is still wagging, even if I say so myself.".
Rowlf appeared in the opening of Jim Henson's Musical World, both in video from his performance with Jimmy Dean at Carnegie Hall in 1965, and in the actual hall. He lamented about the fact that it took Carnegie Hall 47 years to invite him back. Rowlf also sang "I Never Harmed an Onion" at the Just for Laughs show in July 2012. Rowlf's other recent appearances include The Case of the Stolen Show, Lady Gaga & the Muppets' Holiday Spectacular, and the first Muppisode.
In 2014, Rowlf subsequently appeared in Muppets Most Wanted, taking part in the songs "We're Doing a Sequel" and "Something So Right". In the former, Rowlf sings the verse "We can't do any worse than The Godfather 3" and suggests a grim film plot about a lonely dog to Kermit. While both of Rowlf's lines were deleted from the final film version, they are preserved on the soundtrack and the Blu-ray.
Rowlf was prominently featured in segments shown during Puppy Bowl X, where he coached three live puppies. Rowlf also appeared in the Muppets' tie-in commercials for the Toyota Highlander (including unscripted videos where he and Rizzo try to order food), as well as a BuzzFeed video (appearing with Fozzie as company interns). Rowlf recently appeared in a commercial for Lipton Tea. When the Muppets took over The View on August 8, 2014, Rowlf provided Jenny McCarthy with make-up.
Rowlf is a live hand puppet. Jim Henson would usually perform the head (and voice) and left hand, while another Muppeteer (including, at various times, Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, Jerry Nelson, Louise Gold, and Steve Whitmire) performed his right hand. However, when Rowlf played the piano, Henson would helm the head and the second performer would control both hands on the keys. Steve Whitmire commented on performing Rowlf's piano-playing hands in a 1999 interview:
|“||One of my favorite things to do, ever, in my career has been to do Rowlf’s hands on the piano, which is something that other people had done, but once I started doing it, I kind of have done it since... It’s the best job in the world for somebody who sort of plays the piano, but would really like to play the piano well...you can approximate what it’s supposed to be and make it look really good.||”|
Derek Scott, musical consultant for The Muppet Show, supplied Rowlf's pre-recorded piano playing on the program. Rowlf's fingering was never actually worked to be accurate, yet the illusion was not broken due to careful practice and skill of timing and approximating. Steve Whitmire said that when he was going to helm the hands on the keys he would spend hours learning every nuance of a pre-recorded piano track to make it look believable.
Rowlf's piano was a dud, the hands could bang the keys with no sound being emitted; instead, the pre-recorded piano track would handle the music. However, in episode 309 Rowlf had to come in and start playing the same piano which guest star Liberace was performing on. Since the number, including Liberace's actual piano playing, was recorded live, Derek Scott was off camera tickling the ivories while Rowlf mimed the actions on stage. On close inspection of the scene, a viewer can see that Rowlf is actually not touching any of the keys, just banging the air above them so as to not emit any stray sounds and ruin the take.
Although people tend to identify Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog, according to many sources (including Jim Henson: The Works), Rowlf's laid back and down to earth personality was perhaps the closest to Henson's real life demeanor and personality. Brian Henson stated in a Muppet Show introduction that "Kermit was my father's best known character, but a lot of people think he was more like Rowlf in real life...except he couldn't play the piano as well."
On most occasions, Muppets do not appear to have legs, as they are meant to be shown primarily above the waist. There are times, however, in which a character's legs are visible for certain scenes, such as the beginning of "Never Before, Never Again" in episode 418 of The Muppet Show. One "goof" includes a Veterinarian's Hospital sketch, where Rowlf falls into the operating table, and the bottom of the puppet is shown, sans legs.
In the Dog City special, Rowlf comes rolling out on his piano, playing it and driving it at the same time during the dramatic chase scene. In this appearance, Rowlf's full body is shown (it is shown that he is rather chubby in the middle, like Fozzie Bear). In The Great Muppet Caper, his full legs are also exposed several times.
- According to an IBM meeting film produced in 1966, Rowlf's full name is "Rowlf Cameron Swayze." (YouTube)
- Due to his status as the first nationally famous Muppet character, Rowlf was also one of the first commercialized characters. In 1966, Ideal Toys produced a hand puppet Rowlf. The puppet had a hole in his back for performing. Unlike the real Rowlf, the puppet has a felt tongue and a tail.
- There is some discrepancy in how Rowlf's name has been pronounced. Most people pronounce it as "Rolf." On his show, Jimmy Dean pronounced it "Ralph," and others including Jane Henson and Frank Oz have pronounced it this way too. Brian Jay Jones' biography suggests that Henson derived the name from "Ralph." The "correct" pronunciation, from Rowlf's own lips, is closer to "Rolf," but somewhere inbetween. Rowlf pronounces his own name exactly how it's spelled, with an "owl" sound. This makes it sound more like "Raoulf."
- The fame of the piano playing dog led to two books of piano sheet music, released under Rowlf's name - Rowlf's Very Own First Piano Book and Rowlf's Very First Book of Classic Themes.
- A backstage poster hanging on the wall of the Muppet Theater gives "Rowlf with his Honkey Tonk Piano" top billing (listed above "Fozzie Bear Stand Up Comedy Act" and "Miss Piggy Song & Dance Routine")
- Rowlf is a graduate of Ruff Barker's Obedience & Music School where he majored in "piano playing, punning and fetching." 
- Like most dogs, Rowlf is not the only pup in his litter. Although his family history hasn't been explored in much detail, his mother Tilly and his nephew appeared with him in early television spots.
- Rowlf's musical talents, aside from singing and piano playing, include adept mastery of the banjo, bongos, harmonica, harp, pipe organ, synthesizer, violin and ukulele.
- The Muppet Show Book (1978)
- The Comic Muppet Book (1979)
- Robin Hood (1980)
- Muppets at Sea (1980)
- Fozzie's Big Book of Sidesplitting Jokes (1981)
- Jim Henson's Muppet Show Bill (1982)
- The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
- Jim Henson's Bedtime Stories (1991)
- Jim Henson's Muppet Stories (1991)
- I Am Kermit (1993)
- The Muppet Show Comic Book (2009)
- Muppet Robin Hood (2009)
- Muppet Peter Pan (2009)
- Muppet King Arthur (2010)
- Muppet Snow White (2010)
- Kermit's Costume Caper (2012)
- The Twelve Days of a Muppet Christmas (and a Chicken in a Pine Tree) (2012)
- The Muppets Character Encyclopedia (2014)
- ↑ Finch, Christopher. Jim Henson: The Works.
- ↑ Yamaha All Access Magazine
- ↑ screenshot
- ↑ Rowlf's Character Profile on Muppets.com